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Blue carbon: channelling climate finance to incentivise community-led conservation

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Investment in mangrove forests is providing a blueprint for social and economic development along Africa’s coastline – and securing a valuable store of carbon. Esther Ngure, Technical Advisor, Mangrove Markets Kenya explains how barriers to investment have to be removed to ensure equitable access and benefit.

Its sinister-sounding name seems at odds with its idyllic setting: the Bay of Assassins is a large sheltered cove in South-West Madagascar, with clear blue waters, several sandy beaches and fringed by deep, green mangrove forests.

These unique ecosystems – mangroves are trees that thrive in salt water – are home to diverse wildlife, they provide shelter for fish, and help protect the villages studded around the bay from erosion and climate shocks.

Mangrove forests provide a remarkable carbon solution

But mangrove forests are taking on a new significance which reaches far beyond their shores. In recent years, research has indicated that mangroves absorb and store phenomenal amounts of carbon, making the coastal forests powerful allies in the battle against climate change.

It is estimated that protecting and restoring the mangroves in the Bay of Assassins stores over 1,300 tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

While it is in the global interest to protect mangroves to fight climate change and conserve fisheries, this does not always translate to the local level. Communities rely on mangrove extraction for a number of reasons, including charcoal production. Charcoal is the main source of energy for cooking, and its production and sale can provide an immediate income opportunity in communities with high poverty rates.

But in Bay of Assassins, something different is happening. Ten villages have come together to develop the Tahiry Honko project, which is co-managed by Blue Ventures and the Velondriake Association. The project has identified and implemented community-driven policies to restore and protect the mangroves.

Working with local communities can ensure long term carbon storage

Age-old knowledge was put to good use establishing management measures, zoning the forest, and also collecting and planting seedlings. Wardens were appointed and trained in environmental monitoring. The data element is crucial. To access carbon credits, projects need to show that ecosystems are robustly protected enough to lock in carbon for a long period of time (usually one hundred years); and that it is unlikely that there will be deforestation or degradation.

This carbon has a value on the voluntary carbon market − a value that has now been realised by formal validation of the communities’ efforts by the Plan Vivo Standard, one of the standards that enable projects to sell verified blue carbon credits.

This means that when companies are offsetting carbon or institutions are looking for climate-friendly investment, they have confidence in committing their funds to validated locally led blue carbon projects.

“We inherited these mangroves from our ancestors, providing materials we need to survive. I want to ensure we can pass these forests on to our children,” says Joel François, a community representative in Bay of Assassins.

Mangrove action can be scaled up

And that approach can be reproduced and scaled-up worldwide. Tahiry Honko is managing over 1,200 hectares of mangrove forest, but across Africa, more communities are developing  similar projects, tailored to their own priorities and needs – like Mikoko Pamoja and Vanga in Kenya.

Given the presence of mangroves in Asia and the Americas, and the other forms of blue carbon ecosystems around the world, including seagrass meadows and tidal marshland, this is an opportunity to combine much-needed economic development with local ecosystem protection and global emissions reduction. A win-win-win.

But more needs to be done to enable this vision. Blue Ventures has identified a series of barriers to adequate climate finance in mangrove carbon projects. This includes challenges to local ownership of mangroves, which often sit on public land, and to policies which are often absent, obscure, and changing.

Democratising blue carbon will play a critical role in effective storage

The tenure and access rights of communities need to be better respected, and legally recognised. There needs to be a push for democratising access to blue carbon projects, recognising that communities – who often contribute little to climate change but suffer the greatest consequences — are best placed to lead the conservation and restoration of these critical ecosystems, while prioritising the rights of low-income country governments to ​​access the carbon market, and recognising the pressing need for strong, inclusive, fair and rights-based international regulations.

Coastal communities often lack the resources to meet the demands of the carbon standards in quantifying and reporting on the ecological and climate impact of their work, including robust data which is often beyond their reach.

As a global NGO, Blue Ventures has been able to support the development of easy-to-use, open-source tools that enable communities to monitor and manage their blue carbon ecosystems, and give accurate feedback to investors in good time. In 2020, Blue Ventures launched GEM, the Google Earth Engine mangrove mapping methodology: an accessible, intuitive, mobile-based open-source tool designed for local application.

Climate finance of mangrove forests cannot exist as a solution in isolation. Mangroves, while providing a powerful tool against climate change, are themselves highly vulnerable to pressure from human activities, such as charcoal, coastal development and aquaculture, as well as extreme weather patterns, pollution and other stressors.

We need to protect them, in order for them to protect us. Climate finance can provide an important incentive and a source of funding for that protection to take place in the longer term, and with support from governments, civil society and above all, local communities, projects like Tahiry Honko can provide a model for community-led conservation far beyond the Bay of Assassins shoreline.

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